• The Pendulum

Red Light Districts: Sex, Desire, Power

DeVante Kee-Young



Neon lights, bustling alleyways, street eateries, and calls from women trying to make a pretty penny from a sexual encounter encapsulates the ever present sex culture found within East Asian countries. While the stakes are high–prostitution and sex-work are illegal, and sentences range from fines to imprisonment for East Asian countries–it seems as if the sex-workers gloss over the sentences in hopes of attracting a suitor for the night. While there are laws prohibiting sex-work in many East Asian countries, it happens to be a dominating sector of the economy that contributes highly to their respective gross domestic products (GDP). It is exceptionally difficult to define exactly how much the sex-work sector contributes to each country’s economy due to its loose associations amongst sellers and consumers and the lack of defined business structures, therefore the best predictions are supported by rough, over (and under)-generalized statistics that fail to truly encompass the dynaminity of Asian sex-work. And while the economy is an important aspect of this industry, it should not be the sole focus; the intersections of class, race, gender, sex, power, shift-in-values owe just as much to the complexity of the sex industry found within East Asian providences as economics. As such, the intersections are explored within two East Asian countries, China and Vietnam, to give a clearer picture of how intertwined the sex industry is within these respective states and a glimpse into the overall East Asian culture.





The World Health Organization (WHO) defines prostitution as “the exchange of sex for some form of material reward.” Material rewards can be money, “food, shelter, clothing, transport, and social capital”. Within this scope of sex-work, it’s also important to highlight that the main actors involved are women who perform the sexual acts to receive the material rewards and men who receive the sexual acts and pay for them; it’s also to be noted that male sex-workers exist but are not as common as women. There are many factors that play into this pattern: the entrenched history of patriarchal standards as men as the receiver, not the giver; the subjugation of women; and the interaction between social structures, including wealth inequality between men and women, double standards within the culture, and differences in job opportunities. The male sex-work industry is difficult to follow due to stigma surrounding homosexual interactions (made even more difficult because Western ideas of gender and sex can hardly be applied in this case) and East Asia’s own interpretations of acceptable roles for men.


While women sex-workers can be autonomous actors that are capable of making rational decisions for themselves, it is also the case that many of them are coerced into performing that role due to numerous factors. Women and young girls are often affected by sex trafficking; they are put into this system of abuse and objectification at an early age and have no other choice but to perform sex-work in order to survive. Likewise, barriers in place that hinder access to education and higher paying occupations can force women to perform sex-work out of necessity, since these jobs tend to be lucrative and are easy to find. The WHO goes on to state in Sex Work In Asia, “many people are selling sex because of relative deprivation rather than absolute poverty.” Middle class women partake in these activities in order to bring in more cash for their family or to fund their education. While it is true that some women freely choose to perform sex work, this is not the case for many women within the sex industry.


China, a rising hegemon, has started to adopt more relaxed norms regarding sex-work. While the Chinese government became an ardent fighter against “social evils” in 1949, correlating with a decline in the sex-trade, a resurrgence in the economy and materialism and consumerism has since increased the growth of the sex industry, according to WHO’s Sex Work in Asia,. For Chinese sex-workers, it is still important to keep their work hidden in plain sight,even though a large portion of civilians partake in the sex industry. Many women that perform such work can be found in bars, clubs, certain venues, or even massage parlors. Pulled from the Asian Society’s The Lives of Sex Workers in Modern China, “Quite a few women I interviewed worked very hard on production lines in factories for very little money. Then they talked among their friends and found out about jobs in massage parlors.” They would start off giving massages, but as time passed, the women would partake in sexual acts as they found these to be more lucrative. As is the case for many in the sex industry, the underlying social force at play was the need for money–money to feed themselves, feed their children, feed their families, or support loved ones.


Vietnamese sex-workers labor under related contexts. Vietnam is progressing toward a more prosperous economy, and the 2008 economic crisis that plagued that Western Nations is linked to it; despite the crisis, it managed to increase its funds drastically (71 US billion dollars in total in the 2008 fiscal year, which is significantly higher compared to other years, through committed Foreign Direct Investments (FDI)). With a surge in money through both domestic and foreign investments, the culture of Vietnam shifted toward materialistic and consumerist values. This shift in values cultivates the sex industry into what it is now becoming. Kimberly Kay Hoang explores the four “niche markets” of the sex industry of Vietnam in Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work by stating, “the niche markets that cater to local Vietnamese businessmen, Viet Kieus, Western businessmen, and Western budget travelers highlight how the commodification of sexual labor can have multiple and varied effects as male clients and female sex workers negotiate their changing status—either by embracing the shifts in global capital flows that bolstered Asia’s ascendancy or by reproducing old regimes of global power that hinge on Western dominance.” One can see the entanglement of the changing economy and its varied effects on male clientele (which markets they partake in and what those markets symbolize for them). What is also seen are female sex-workers catering to different classes of men depending on their own socioeconomic statuses and opportunities (what types of values and power dynamics are placed on them as well as the constant objectification for certain purposes).


The sex industry within East Asian culture is ever present and is not easily digestible. The idea of sex-work itself is not a problematic one, but it becomes problematic when underlying social structures, coercion, and the chance of disease (HIV/STDs) burden large groups of people. Paradigms start to form and can become chokeholds for people, largely women and girls which strip away autonomy and breed abuse in physical, mental, and emotional forms. It is of paramount importance to highlight the culture of the sex industry within Asian countries and how it operates within their cultural values so that advocacy for women affected by these misfortunes can occur, giving sex workers the opportunity to be seen, heard, and helped.

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